Commentary: A time of celebration for Piper Laurie

Also: A salute to Liz Smith

This week sees the launch of two additions to the Broadway boards: The new Jason Robert Brown musical "13" opens Oct. 5 at the Jacobs, and Oct. 7, the Roundabout's revival of "A Man for All Seasons" officially begins at the American Airlines Theatre with Frank Langella taking on the role that brought the late Paul Scofield a 1962 Tony Award and a 1966 Oscar. That's a statistic Langella might soon be able to similarly claim if his performance in the film version of "Frost/Nixon" lives up to the pre-Oscar buzz it's generating. Langella won the Tony for best actor for the 2007 legit version of "F/X."

Also on the docket in the near future: an Oct. 30 salute to the lady who is probably today's best-liked Manhattanite, the indefatigable Liz Smith. Liz might have once had some competition in that much-admired category from the older Brooke Astor and Kitty Carlisle Hart, but Liz, declared a Living N.Y. Landmark in 1996, holds that torch these days. One of the many things she's done through the years with her syndicated columns is champion the world of cabaret and its ever-changing venues both in New York and across the country, which is why the second night of the 19th annual Cabaret Convention running Oct. 29-Nov. 1 will celebrate Liz.

The convention, produced as always by Donald Smith for the Mabel Mercer Foundation, is always one of the great N.Y. treats as well as one of the town's best bargains: four days of performances by some of the best and best-known cabaret talents working today, gathered in a single setting (Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall) and at a bargain price (tickets start at $25). This year's participants will include Julie Wilson, Karen Akers, Marilyn Maye, Eric Comstock, Mary Cleere Haran, Barbara Carroll, KT Sullivan, Craig Rubano, Ann Hampton Callaway, Jeff Harnar, Klea Blackhurst, Karen Mason, Matt Cavenaugh and some three dozen others, plus, as Smith always delivers, a few unannounced surprises. And who knows? Liz Smith has been known to chirp a tune or two in public before, though I've not heard of any recording contracts resulting from any of her song sessions. But maybe Don Smith will be able to convince her to lean against a piano and turn chanteuse again on "her" night. (One of my favorite sightings in a movie: a nightclub scene where the singer, usually a femme fatale in the Ava Gardner-Lauren Bacall-Lizabeth Scott lexicon, comes out and does an "act" that consists of only one single, solitary song. Only in the movies. ...)


The timing couldn't have been more ironic: I was in Port Townsend, Wash., on Sept. 27, preparing to do an on-stage interview with Piper Laurie following a screening of "The Hustler," when the word came that Paul Newman had died. Because Piper L. was the festival's primary celebrity guest, everywhere you looked in that beautiful seaport spot in the Pacific Northwest there was Newman's face alongside Laurie's, looming out in posters and stills from that 1961 film, one of his best. The town was humming with festivalgoers, many of whom went out of their way to say that the loss of Newman was akin to the loss of a close friend or family member. They would talk about his looks and appeal as an actor and, to a man, expressed particular admiration for the good deeds he'd done as a humanitarian.

As it turned out, having a "Hustler" screening on that particular night couldn't have been better timed. It turned into a celebration of both Laurie and Newman, a sharp reminder of just how good each of them was at that point in their careers and how well they deserved the Oscar noms they received as 1961's best actor and best actress, along with Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott in the best supporting actor category.

Laurie spoke of her deep admiration for Newman. They'd worked together in Robert Wise's 1957 "Until They Sail" but, she said, "We had very little connection in that film but, of course, on 'The Hustler,' we did." Choosing her words carefully and thoughtfully, she said, "Paul was very easygoing, and he was never a smart ass. ... He was fun to be around. ... I found him remarkable and yet unremarkable. He worked very hard. I don't think acting came easily to Paul, but he made it look easy. He was also extremely sensitive but always tried to cover it up. ... Paul realized how lucky he was for the fame and the wealth and what he had, and I think that is why he did what he did with it." Certainly few have ever used their riches better. Paul Newman was a superb actor but, if anything, that charity work is his supreme legacy.


THE RACK, 1956
Newman's second film (following the disastrous "The Silver Chalice") but held until after the release of No. 3, "Somebody Up There Likes Me," it has a riveting screenplay by Stewart Stern based on a Rod Serling teleplay, with PN terrific as a troubled Army captain in the throes of a court-martial.

Proof that early on PN planned to be much more than a conventional movie hero. He plays a decidedly off-beat Billy the Kid in a unconventional sagebrusher made at a time when such fare wasn't yet in vogue. Based on a Gore Vidal teleplay, it is the first feature directed by Arthur Penn.

PN's own mother often declared this her favorite of all her son's films. This offers the complete Newman: rough-edged loner and laborer, then tuxedoed Philadelphia mainliner, then shrew but honest big-time lawyer. Also, of course, catnip to beauties such as Alexis Smith and Barbara Rush.

HOMBRE, 1967
The least known of PN's many "H" movies, it was directed by Martin Ritt with a story by Elmore Leonard. Set in Arizona of the 1880s, Newman plays a strong, silent, steely (and blue) eyed Caucasian raised by Apaches, unwelcome on a stagecoach because of fellow passenger's prejudices.

He and wife Joanne Woodward play a long-time married couple in one of the most charming and least known of the Merchant-Ivory films. PN says his character is the most like the real PN he ever played; some pals say, no, no, it couldn't be more unlike the Paul Newman they knew and adored.